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September 20, 2012 at 10:25 AM

Different ways to examine baseball strategy when it’s done on-the-fly

One of the best things about baseball is that it lends itself to all types of interpretation. It’s a subjective game and the context behind every play leads to variables that cannot be adequately summarized as a generality.
In laymen’s terms, it’s why every half-inebriated fan in your local tavern thinks he can outmanage the manager. Sometimes, he can. Even managers make mistakes. But most of the time, the managers are going on hunches, on-the-fly, based on the context of the moment, not the hundreds of outcomes that occured under different contexts.
And while this armchair managing is a source of annoyance at times, most people who earn their living off baseball have come to accept it as a reality of their jobs. After all, if there weren’t so many people thinking they could manage the game better than the pros, there would not be so much interest in the game itself. And the dollars people spend to watch said game would not be as high, with some of that wealth redistributed to managers.
See how that works? Circle of life.
Anyhow, last night’s 11th inning is one of those cases in point. There was enough going on that inning to fuel days worth of armchair managing.
The biggest point up for discussion is whether Michael Saunders should have tried to steal second base with runners at first and third and two out, his team needing two runs and arguably its best hitter — in a part-time role, anyway — at the plate in John Jaso.
I can see both sides. First off, if Saunders makes it, we aren’t having this discussion. And Saunders makes it the vast majority of the time. If there’s one guy on the Mariners I don’t want on base in that situation as an opposing player, it’s Saunders.
But he didn’t make it, so here we are.
I have heard some valid reasoning for why Saunders should not have gone.
It boils down to:
a) You don’t risk taking the bat out of Jaso’s hands
b) Even had Saunders stolen second base, the Orioles would have just walked Jaso to load the bases and forced Trayvon Robinson to do something
That’s a fair argument. I might even be inclined to agree with it. Except that…
Photo Credit: AP

Once again, you have to understand context. These Mariners had scored just once in the last 24 innings against an Orioles team that now seems destined to win no matter what the score or situation.
So, if you’re Saunders and you hold at first base, you’re pretty much assuming your team is going to get two more hits to tie the game off one of its better closers in Jim Johnson before the Orioles can get one more out.
You buying those odds? I’m not. Not with this team and this offense.
Sure, Jaso could have hit a home run. Yeah, I suppose any player can in any at-bat. But chances are better that he’d hit a single. Like Saunders, I want that single to count for two runs and not just one, so I like my chances with one of my best baserunners on second instead of first.
The only other alternative would be for Jaso to hit a double that could score Saunders from first base to tie the game.
Jaso does have 17 doubles this year, so it’s possible. But looking at his pinch-hit stats, he’s got just one double in 21 pinch-hit appearances. And yes, there is probably a good reason for that. When pinch-hitters come up late in games — with something on the line — the other team is usually adequately positioned with a “no doubles” defense, especially when up by more than a run with the tying run three bags away. That means infielders guarding the lines so a ball can’t be rifled over the bags at first and third. And it means the outfielders play deeper so balls can’t get behind them or to the gaps.
In other words, odds are that Jaso would not have been able to hit a double. Odds were much greater that any hit he had would be either a home run or a single. Which would you bank on?
And a single doesn’t score Saunders.
So, there you go. As for the argument that Orioles manager Buck Showalter would have merely walked Jaso to get to Trayvon Robinson, I’m not buying that entirely. First off, I’m not sure Showalter puts the winning run on first base just to try to prevent a tie from happening. That’s a bit of a baseball no-no.
But even if he did, all you’re left with is the same probability of needing Robinson to get a single.
Because had Saunders stayed at first base and Jaso singled to score one run, the Mariners would still have needed Robinson to get a hit to tie it in any event. So, having him come up with the bases juiced and needing a hit still gives you the same chance to tie the game.
And frankly, I think Johnson had one more hit left in him at best, whether it came from Jaso or Robinson. Might as well have had two guys in scoring position for that one hit.
And Robinson can come up with a single in extra innings with a game on the line. We know this, how? Because he had done it just 24 hours earlier in the 18-inning game, that’s how.
Like I said, there are two sides to every coin.
Why not use Jaso earlier on?
Because manager Eric Wedge did not want to burn him by having the Orioles bring in a left-hander, as was the case on Tuesday night.
Yes, it created a big mess in the 10th inning. But it’s created a big mess all season, so that’s nothing new. As good as Jaso has been in a part-time role, as a part-time player, there is a reason he’s not filling a more full-time role. First, his numbers tend to dwindle the more games in a row he plays. The last time he started more than four games in a row was back in May when he played in seven. And he went 6-for-25 (.240) over that stretch. The Mariners have decided that the best way to maximize Jaso’s skills is as a part-timer and — based on his overall numbers — it’s a strategy that’s working. Maybe next year, he shows he’s up to more. Now is not next year.
Second, and much more important to this context, Jaso cannot hit left-handed pitching.
Jaso is a .135 hitter with a .423 OPS against lefties.
Orioles southpaw Brian Matusz is holding lefties to a .180 average and .523 OPS and that’s come against guys who primarily hit the ball a whole lot better against southpaws than Jaso does, I guarantee you.
So, no. Wedge is not going to use Jaso against a lefty if he can at all avoid it.
Yes, he’s going to take the righty-on-righty risk with Miguel Olivo every time. Why did he have Olivo bunting? Because it was a 2-0 count and if you’re ever going to try a bunt, that’s the pitch to do it on since you expect the pitcher to be coming down the middle with a fastball rather than risk going to 3-0.
Olivo may be a better hitting option against a righty in that situation than Jaso against a southpaw, but you’re still talking about a guy hitting .202 with a .524 OPS in that split. So, if you can get away with a bunt that moves a runner into scoring position, it’s probably a better outcome than anything else you’ll get at that stage.
As for why the Mariners didn’t pinch-hit with Jaso after that Olivo at-bat, or in the 11th inning with Justin Smoak due up, again it comes down to context and the situation at the time. Mike Carp typically hits left-handers fairly well, so if you’re going to have a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Matusz coming in, you take your chances with pinch-hitter Carp over Jaso.
For me, there is a valid argument that Carp has not had enough recent playing time to be sharp enough against a top situational guy and I’ll buy that as valid criticsim of Wedge. But on a strictly matchup argument, the numbers favor Carp by a longshot.
And again, you move on and on. Yeah, Wedge coud have used Jaso earlier on in the 11th inning instead of allowing Justin Smoak to switch-hit against the righty Johnson. But again, folks, Smoak is supposed to be a team cornerstone. He either is or he isn’t. If this year is about finding stuff out, well, we’re finding stuff out.
Aside from that, if you burn Jaso against Johnson at that point, you have nobody left on the bench capable of rising to the occasion (apologies to Carlos Peguero and Luis Jimenez). And that means, even if Jaso gets a single, you’re still going to need another hit from somebody. And just two batters after Smoak, you had Olivo and his righty bat Johnson would have been licking his chops at.
So, Wedge made a gamble that Smoak might somehow advance the runners, even if making an out. And let’s not forget, that was a spectacular 3-6-1 double-play turned by the Orioles. Otherwise, it’s first and third and one out, a lefty up in Saunders and Jaso ready to hit after that. And then, Wedge doesn’t look so bad strategy-wise.
Like I said, the counter argument isn’t wrong, either. And I’ll be the first to tell you it doesn’t look good that the Mariners played 29 innings in two days and somehow, Jaso managed to not swing the bat once.
But there’s a reason why he did not do it and part of that reason is accepting Jaso’s limitations as a player. You either get it, or you don’t. I think Jaso is one of the most valuable contributors the Mariners have had this season, but that does not mean I think he’s a full-time player. Nor has he shown this year that he can be a full-time player, having piled up his stats in half the PA’s normally given a full-timer.
We spoke last winter about the difference between a full-timer and a part-timer and how understanding that is part of the keys to not only doing proper baseball analysis, but also having an understanding of why teams use players in the capacities they do. And the moves made last night by Wedge were very consistent with how this team views Jaso and what his limited numbers have shown him capable of.
Frankly, the problem last night which many critics are actually pointing to without realizing it, is not the manager. It’s the composition of this roster. There are too many hitters in full-time roles who need to be treated as platoon guys with a game on the line. That’s what happens with a terrible offense. The Mariners hope many of the hitters we expected Jaso to pinch-hit for will eventually become full-timers who can handle both-handed pitchers.
That hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen.
But until then, it’s not the manager who deserves the bulk of criticism. It’s the guy one chair higher than him who put this roster together. And maybe the guys several chairs higher who didn’t spend enough money for the roster-builder to upgrade talent-wise with.
You wanted a rebuilding plan, you’ve got it. Warts and all.
This team is what it is. The manager doesn’t get the final call on talent. He has to do the best he can with what’s given him. We can all disagree about how he does that because, like I said, second-guessing the manager is something any drunk in a bar can do.
But when you actually think it through, roll through the myriad options available and realize a manager only has a split-second to make decisions on stuff we can pore over for hours, you understand why he has the job and we don’t. Sure, they make mistakes. But poring over the data from last night, I don’t see anything too eggregious. Not if you understand the limits of Jaso as player.
And if you don’t understand them, well, it will impact your analysis. And your opinion will be vastly different from this one.
That’s why we all love baseball. Bringing in an eighth manager since Lou Piniella left Seattle won’t make the current Mariners hitters any better than they are. Time to aim the criticism a little higher.



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